Narrative Statement of Significance

The Ave is a Survivor

Throughout its history, the Ave has survived wide swings of boom and bust. In the building boom after the Great Fire of 1889, a streetcar line through the logged-off area north of Portage Bay invited street platting and future construction, which was however slowed by the financial crisis of 1893. But by the turn of the century, a residential district had sprouted up along the streetcar line on Columbus Ave (now University Way NE) to serve the relocated State University, opened in 1895. With the discovery of Yukon gold, Seattle experienced a boom that was celebrated on the lower campus grounds by the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 that in turn spurred the commercial development of the Ave. This continued unabated through the teens and twenties with the arrival of automobiles, and was only halted by the stock market crash of 1929.

Following the Great Depression and a World War, boom returned to the Ave, fueled by prosperity and the availability of gasoline, which at the same time posed a threat to the crowded commercial district in the convenient parking at Northgate Mall and University Village. As businesses began moving off the Ave, a different culture began moving into the spaces vacated by large national franchises. Reflecting the cultural revolution of the sixties, this inclusive counterculture was not just anti-authoritarian, but even more so communitarian and multi-cultural, and is very much still with us today. It found expression in the local import shops, alternative bookstores, espresso shops, and exotic eateries that are the defining character of The Ave today.

With its designation as an urban center replete with high-rises and a light-rail station, The Ave has yet another chance to reinvent itself as a district that embodies its own history at its human scale, providing the third places where community thrives within a uniform, detached, and computerized consumer society. Northgate Mall has closed, and University Village has gone upscale, but The Ave survives for one and all.

1. Prehistory: Longhouse to Farmhouse (2,000 BCE - 1890)

Indigenous people have lived in Seattle for at least four millennia, where the Lake People among the Duwamish established a winter village at the mouth of Ravenna Creek (called Little Canoe Channel). Before removing to Lake Sammamish in the 1880s, “Indian Jim” Dzakwús lived at an encampment near the foot of Brooklyn Avenue along a small stream (called Croaking) that still runs beneath an opening in the basement of the bank building at 4502, a stream that emptied a frog pond. There was a trail from this encampment to Union Bay and Little Canoe Channel.

Apart from posts from a fishing weir in the marsh that is now University Village, no Native remains have been uncovered in the district. The first Euro-Americans to settle in the district were Christian and Harriet Brownfield at Pioneer Farm, the quarter-section between 5th and 15th Avenues, NE south of NE 45th Street, in 1867.

In 1887 Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman built the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Rail Road, whose roadbed survives as the Burke-Gilman Trail, to transport local lumber and coal to sawmill and waterfront, and by 1891 the area west of 15th Avenue had been logged off, to join the fledgling communities of Fremont, Latona, Ravenna, and Yesler, a lumber mill on Union Bay. In 1888 William W. Beck purchased 400 acres around the Ravenna ravine and creek, developing Ravenna Park and platting the settlement of Ravenna Springs, with a train stop at Ravenna (Blakeley Street and 24th Avenue).

2. A Streetcar Named Speculation (1891)

In 1890 the developer James Moore bought and platted the eastern half of the Brownfield farm, calling it Brooklyn after another city across a waterway from a metropolis. It was indeed destined to become the largest commercial district in the city outside downtown. The following year Seattle voted to annex it together with Ravenna, Latona, and Fremont, more than doubling the area of Seattle to include its 2,500 new suburbanites. This urged the pioneer David Denny to extend his Rainer Power and Railway Co. electric streetcar route across a bridge at Latona and eastward to Brooklyn Avenue by 1892. 

Before the financial crisis of 1893 bankrupted Denny, the trolley line was extended by Beck north along The Ave to Ravenna Park, where the old growth forest could be viewed for an admission fee of 25 cents. The streetcar was no doubt intended to spur building speculation, and by 1895 a small collection of farms, residences, and 11 commercial establishments including two boarding houses, two builders, a dairy, dressmaker, moving company, grocer, gardener, meat market, and (of course) a real estate office, had grown up along Summit Avenue. (now Roosevelt Way), Broadway (now Brooklyn Avenue) and Columbus Avenue. These street names were soon accommodated to the city street grid of numbered avenues and streets, at which time Columbus became 14th Avenue, colloquially called “The Ave” by future students.

3. University & Exposition (1895-1910)

Meanwhile Edmond Meany had been elected to the territorial legislature and in 1891 began urging that the University move from its 10-acre downtown site onto section 16 of the township that, as in every township in the west, was set aside by law for educational purposes. The legislative session of 1893 approved a site on the northwest quarter-section, where the campus now stands, and the territory acquired the land from the federal government. By the following year a spur of the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern was laid to transport stones to Denny Hall, with enough left over for the Observatory. 

Following a well-attended ceremony to lay the cornerstone, the university opened in Denny Hall with 310 students in 1895. This further spurred residential development, especially as professors, staff, fraternities and sororities, all needed homes, as Brooklyn eventually became the University District. Five such homes remain today behind storefronts at 4336, 4736, 4740, 4752, and 4756 University Way, supplemented by apartments at 4215 and 4234, with a meeting hall upstairs at 4205. As a result of this population growth, University Heights School (a National Landmark building) was opened in 1903. 

The optimism of this young community within a city burgeoning after the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 was affirmed by siting Seattle’s first world fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 on the lower campus, with Rainier Vista as its focus, as planned by the Olmstead Brothers. This firm had already planned the Seattle Park System with its interconnecting boulevards including Ravenna Boulevard and University Parkway (now 17th Avenue), a sign of the growing popularity of automobile excursions in the new century. 

Although Architecture Hall and Cunningham Hall are the only campus buildings remaining from the fair, its effects were strongly felt along The Ave, beginning during the fair with the College Inn at the corner of 42nd Street (a National Landmark building) built by developer Charles Cowen, who had donated Cowen Park to the city. Arriving in town for the fair was Angus Malloy, who built large apartment houses, first the Malloy Building at 4346 and another at 4557 University Way, and then in 1928 the Malloy Apartments on 15th Avenue. During the 1910s The Ave became a predominantly commercial thoroughfare. In 1915 there were more than 150 businesses on the Ave, including no less than seven confectioners to satisfy the sweet tooth of students, since the university banned alcohol within a mile from campus. Residences, many of them stately, spread throughout the University Heights and University Park developments north of 45th Street, as fraternity and sorority houses moved off the Ave and clustered around Greek Row (17th Avenue). 

Further development came with the completion of the long-desired Montlake Cut in 1917, which lowered Lake Washington by nine feet, drying out the marsh on which University Village would later be located. Replacing the Latona bridge with the University Bridge in 1919 established 10th Avenue (Roosevelt Way) as an automobile arterial. At the same time 14th Avenue was renamed University Way, though still called colloquially “The Ave,” the main street for the entire district adjacent to a university that had grown to over 5,000 students in 1920.

4. Boom, Bust, & War (1920-1945)

In 1924 the University Book Store moved from campus into 4326 University Way and became the keystone establishment for further commercial development along the Ave, as it necessitated student visits to the Ave and urged merchants to cater to the student population. Major retailers joined the boom, including Wallin & Nordstrom at 4222, Marlatt’s Bakery at 4321, F. W. Woolworth at 4325, Bartell Drugs at 4342, Martin & Eckmann at 4346, and J. C. Penney at 4515, joining the University Bookstore on the Ave, with Sears & Roebuck over on Roosevelt Way. Numerous small businesses grew up in the many commercial buildings replacing earlier residences or added onto them in their front yards. The narrow 20-to-40-foot width of the storefronts continued to characterize construction in this period, proving amenable to the many small businesses that still make the district a unique shopping and dining experience. 

Apartment houses also flourished as population density increased, most notably the Wilsonian at 4710, where Bertha Knight Landes came to live once she entered politics, becoming the first woman to be elected mayor of a major American city in 1926, just sixteen years after women won the right to vote in the state, under a platform of “municipal housekeeping” during the corruption and bootlegging of Prohibition. Mark Tobey, who lived in a house on Brooklyn Avenue, and the Northwest School of abstract expressionists that gathered around him, held a gallery in Otto Seligman’s apartment at the Wilsonian. Like University Heights School before it, construction of Roosevelt High School responded to the population pressure in the district, as did five large churches, two movie theaters, and an 8-story office building (demolished for the Safeco Tower). The residential districts of University Heights and University Park were almost entirely built out by the end of the decade. 

After the first radio stations, beginning with KJR from a garage in the Ravenna District in 1922 and another from a tower built on rumrunner Roy Olmstead’s property in the Mount Baker neighborhood in 1924, Western Radio Sales opened at 4311. The large draw however was toward the district’s new theaters, the Neptune in 1921 on 45th Street and the Egyptian in 1925 at 4543 with elegant Egyptian décor following the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, when things Egyptian were all the rage. 

With the Stock Market crash of 1929, new construction came to a virtual halt. The notable exceptions were the towering Meany Hotel, funded by private contributions, the Jones Playhouse, and public work projects such as a new Post Office built by the WPA, the 45th Street viaduct, and the 15th Avenue bridge over Ravenna-Cowen Park. In 1940 the streetcars and trolley tracks were removed, to be replaced by trolley buses.

The War Years (1942-45) saw little change on The Ave beyond the absence of young men of draft age—and sadly all those of Japanese ancestry.

5. The Post-War Boom (1946-1964)

After years of gas rationing for the war effort, automobiles returned to the Ave in huge numbers. The University District Parking Association was formed, and parking meters were installed on The Ave. Still the street remained clogged. The remedy seemed to be the development of malls, that is central shopping clusters surrounded by huge parking lots. One of the earliest in the nation was Northgate Mall, begun in 1950 and located north of the old city limits. 

But the lowered lake level created by the Montlake Cut opened up another space that became the grounds for University Village, opened in 1956. Moving there for more accessible parking, businesses like Rhodes department store and Ernst Hardware left the Ave. Ernst had been there since 1928, when they had bought out Paysee Hardware at 4557, an offshoot of the oldest retail business in the area. For all that, the Ave remained vibrant in the 1960s, in spite of being less than hospitable to automobiles. It has survived by reinventing itself as a uniquely different place, while Northgate has recently closed. 

Construction of Interstate 5, beginning in 1958, cut the district off from the Latona and Wallingford neighborhoods and created congestion along NE 45th and 50th Streets. To the south, construction of Highway 520 in the early sixtied created major congestion along Pacific Street and Montlake Avenue and across the Montlake Bridge. Further construction of the R. H. Thomson Expressway on the eastern edge of the district, with a connecting highway at NE 50th Street, was fortunately rejected by voters in 1972. The concept of speeding motorists from one town to another, only to dump them off onto congested streets, has proved to be very short-sighted, since the freeways are now themselves congested.

6. Counterculture: Student Activism of the 1960’s (1968 - 1972)

Political activism came with force to the University District in the late sixties and early seventies. As the UW student population approached 30,000, and the post-war baby-boom generation came of college age. Locally, the politics of the early Free-Speech movement gave way to sometimes violent anti-Vietnam War protests. Merchants and small businesses on the Ave were in the unenviable position of trying to welcome students as customers, just as these students and local non-students were becoming radicalized in their resistance to an unjust war. Many young people were ready to attack the injustice of the entire “system,” local businesses included. 

Some members of the U District’s long-standing civic culture (composed of merchants, property owners, and university representatives, led by Andy Shiga, owner of 4306, and attorney Cal McCune, owner of 4112) attempted to meet this student movement with progressive and community-building initiatives, or at least openness to these initiatives. Among these were the Open-Door Free Medical Clinic, the U District Community Center, and especially the annual U District Street Fair, the longest-running street fair in the country. Retail and cultural inclusive enterprises of the period include Cal McCune’s La Tienda Folk Art Gallery at 4136 and Randy Finley’s Movie House (now the Grand Illusion) still showing independent, foreign, and art films at 4756. 

Eventually in a proposal supported by the University of Washington, Safeco, and local banks, came a plan to pedestrianize the Ave. This communitarian dream was also an attempt to create a commercial district which would be competitive with Northgate Mall and other new shopping options. This dream died due partly to the local “Boeing bust” and partly to resistance from smaller property owners, who did not want to pay the taxes involved, but who also did not want to create more space for a culture of drug use and other forms of youth anarchy, which they viewed as disturbing a healthy commercial village. 

Two tall buildings were built in this era, Safeco’s national headquarters tower, now the UW tower, and the University Plaza condominiums, which was constructed, despite resistance from the newly formed U District Community Council. These two joined the high-rise Meany Hotel (now Graduate Hotel) that was built in 1931, just after the Crash. The University Bookstore expanded to its current size, replacing two competitors, the Tyee and the Washington Bookstore.

7. High-Rise: Becoming an Urban Center (2017 - Present)

Identified by the city government of Mayor Norm Rice as one of the few “urban centers” to develop in Seattle, the U District was earmarked for higher density growth than the more plentiful “urban villages” surrounding it. Already the second largest transit center, two light rail stations were planned to connect the neighborhood, with the second one just off The Ave at NE 43rd Street, completed in 2022. After contentious community debate, the U District was upzoned from low- to high-rise with building height limits as tall as 320 feet in 2017. 

At that time and wary of commercial displacement, merchants organized to conduct a survey of 123 small businesses along The Ave to gauge the likely impacts of a five-fold increase in height. They successfully and repeatedly negotiated a delay of the upzone along The Ave to mitigate those impacts on the 65% women- and minority-owned businesses. 

The local small businesses, the largest concentration of which is along The Ave, provide the vital “third places,” where community thrives. They share the long-standing goal of the U District community to nurture a unique, human-scaled shopping and entertainment destination along the main street, and through the research for this application, to recognize the essential need to preserve the historical and cultural significance of the buildings along this spine, surrounded by high-rise residential and office buildings. At present, 88% of the buildings between NE 41st and 50th Streets were built before 1950 and are most are significant.

8. To Be Continued...

Be a part of shaping the U District. Consider joining the U District Community Council, or volunteering with the U District Advocates.

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